Snow. White redaction of the land.
Trees ink up into dun sky,
Their shadows tombs in thinning light.
World new-made in white
Unmaking everything below.
Winter a shiver on the bone.
Snow. White redaction of the land.
Trees ink up into dun sky,
Their shadows tombs in thinning light.
World new-made in white
Unmaking everything below.
Winter a shiver on the bone.
… It is not clear why a permit used to be required to pass through these woods, but I suspect it has something to do with the state in which the land had been left (especially the exposed and treacherous cellars of the house) after the demolition gangs had done their work in the 1960s. I make a polite farewell to my well-met stranger and approach the gate into the woods. As I step from Higher Coach Road into its sequel, I am conscious that I am walking down her memory lane and at the same time forging my own. It is an odd sensation.
As I start along the path through the wood I have a strong sense of having just crossed a threshhold and – like Lucy Pevensey looking back towards the Wardrobe – I cannot help but look back down the road, my eye telescoping to its presumed, unfocused end. The mist still idles in the hollow places and everything I see is revealed by slow degrees at the whim of the path and the weather. Beside me, South Lodge with its intricate but softened gable ends – portents of what once might be expected of Milner Field House – has clearly seen better days. New windows have taken the place of the old sashes which lie stacked, smashed, their frames rotten, a stone’s throw away. A playground for invertebrates and other woodland creatures. The shed is webbed over and its locks and hinges rusted shut. Already I am aware of decay and of the wood’s reclamation of this strip of land. I pass by quickly, wary of watchers in the Lodge who may be suspicious of my curiosity.
The start of the path through the woods is densely over-canopied, with branches forming a low rough vault over the way and holly (a favourite plant of the Salt family) hemming me in on either side, appearing oddly overdressed in its solid waxy green beside the slapdash nudity of the other trees. Over-braced by the flying buttresses of beech and horse chestnut, I am as secluded as one is ever likely to feel on a path and, funnelled through the wood, driven through to its secret hiding-places, am quickly lost to the wider world. A magpie twirls out from a tree in search of treasures, its wings a pied fan opening, and it is my turn to start, my heart pumping fear in my chest. The walking is not unpleasant, but it is tomb-stone quiet, and perhaps because of the stranger’s equivocation over access, there is a feeling of pacing through someone else’s privacy here, the leaves underfoot confirming the impression with their unmistakable shushing. I feel at once tucked away from the world and a keen sense of – not going back in time exactly – but a conspicuous awareness that the wood is keeping mum about the abandoned remains at its heart. Its secrets will perhaps not so easily be given up.
The trees that line the way show no signs of being managed, having seeded themselves at will, over stones and on top of one another, and encroaching on the path. There are multi-stemmed trees here as are more commonly found in a hazel coppice, except these are untended and their trunks sprout unchecked and unharvested. Gossamer strands spun out optimistically onto the breeze by orb weavers and other spiders which love the nooks of the cross-stitch trunkery catch unexpectedly, unwelcome, across my cheeks. Little snares, warnings perhaps. I am put strongly in mind of Kipling’s poem The Way Through the Woods and my steps begin to pace out its rhythms: “They shut the road through the woods/ Seventy years ago./ Weather and rain have undone it again,/ And now you would never know/ There was once a road through the woods/ Before they planted the trees.” When the road was in use by the Salts, it was open and there were certainly fewer trees. These are mostly incomers after the fact, like me, and that’s reassuring. Back in the day, the road was lined on either side with fashionable rhododendron bushes, many of which remain like clues, though most without tending have grown leggy and wilded themselves to the wood, making way for trees and sometimes stooping under them. The clumsy fall of my foot snapping a twig is as vital a crack in the stillness as the report of a gun and a jay leaps into flight, its chinoiserie plumage painting the sky.
The breeze is communicated up the canopy of the trees in whispers behind me, getting nearer and nearer: leaves catch the trembling flit of it from their neighbours and together they are made one seething organism, moving up the path behind and then overtaking me. Occasionally a following tread sounds on the path and I am backward-glancing and self-admonishing at the ghost of fear that spikes into me. There’s no one behind of course – probably a conker from a horse chestnut, though it’s late in the season for their fall. I stand for some time transfixed with my gaze directed backwards down the path, convinced I will see my mystery walker solidify from phantom to pedestrian reality if I look long enough. Nothing. And yet the treads had fallen with pronounced and unmistakable walking accents behind me. But I am alone on the path, in the wood, in the past.
When I reach the cross roads in the wood, I am assailed by a strong sense of deja vu; I’ve been here before. In the spring, whilst searching out the local flora I stumbled upon a public footpath called Sparable Lane (a corruption of Sparrow’s Bill) bounded on each side by dry stone walls. Looking across the clearing now, I make out the sloping of that other path and realise in a sudden moment of spooked uncanniness that I am indeed walking my own memory lane.
Though access is not legislated nor official through the wood, the fact that the path remains clear and easy to traverse (I can see that branches that would have struck across the way have been cut cleanly back) speaks of the local will to keep it open. This is a path informally maintained by common (if somewhat illicit) consent. Though presently alone in the woods, I see evidence of human activity here and there: empty beer cans and crisp packets, but also elective desire paths through the ground ivy, which I assume dog-walkers have made in their journeys through the wood.
I take the path to the left, accompanied by the ticklish sound of water running in little draining ditches at its sides, and ascend to where I know the house was situated. Even though I’m climbing up, it somehow feels like going down – like Orpheus going down into Hades. An old fir throws out a bough to mark where to turn aside for the area I believe the house to have occupied, and I feel a moment’s guilt at the discrepancy between Orpheus’s rescue mission and my own morbid quest to pick over old bones. I ignore the feeling, weaving a way between fallen trees until I see the first of the sizeable and haphazardly cast aside masonry pieces. They are wrapped lushly in blankets of moss and appear unmoved from where first they fell when discarded by the demolition gangs. As my eye deciphers the undulating mounds of greenery and stone, I begin to see pile upon pile of building materials, careless cast-offs like scattered thoughts that once made a house. Weather and rain have undone it again – or in this case the sledge hammers of demolition gangs who perhaps put more store in bricks and stone than in tales of terror and hauntings and shook their heads over such a waste. I walk gingerly between open tunnels and access hatches into the original cellars, testing the load-bearing capacity of patches of ground doubtfully with my toes.
My tip-toe exploration turns up salt-glazed bricks which were supplied by Joseph Cliff & Sons of Leeds, window glass and giant hefts of stone quarried from the top of the hill I passed on my way through the wood. Local materials and trades for a local house – a respectful approach from an incomer. Curiously I feel my own incomer status here even more keenly, looking at the wreckage of another’s dreams strewn at my feet.
Close-covering ivy and bursts of lush frilling tongue ferns clamber the ruins, redacting stone and brick so that the sense one might have been able to make of the building’s vocabulary – there a coping stone, there a window lintel – is all but lost. These plants are some of the typical ‘reclaimers’ when a once-developed area is left abandoned for any length of time. With the industry of soldiers, they move in and efficiently revert the land, steadily editing out all traces of cultivation and habitation. I find it difficult to overlay this chaotic and shambolic scene with the palimpsest of the Milner Field House which I hold in my mind’s eye, an image in which the house stands self-importantly in a desert of lawn and gardens. Few trees at all. This wood can be no more than sixty or perhaps seventy years old then: a comparatively young wood, surging into being through its own will and the simple neglect of the land. Here too there survive great bushes of the original rhododendrons, and I make a promise to myself to return the next spring to see them in bloom.
There’s one final sight I want to find – the wood’s incongruous mosaiced floor, along from the rubble heaps, and following the lines of where the winter garden used to stand. A soiled and leafed-over dance floor it seems in the middle of the wood, nothing could be stranger. It is the floor of the glass conservatory which housed all manner of exotic plants when owned by the Salts – perhaps to the delight of the visiting Prince and Princess of Wales. Now a muddy floor which leaves skip over. I push the toe of my shoe into its soil dermis and fresh, new-babe pink peeps out at me, and in other parts the original mosaic patterns can still be seen. Too difficult and too costly for the demolition gang to break up and remove, so here it lies still, creating its own little clearing, a landmark and fixture of the wood. Squirrels, foxes, shrews and hedgehogs perhaps navigate by it, their trails making room for it, crossing and re-crossing it, scenting it with scat: a posh woodland toilette. A happy thought.
A light rain starts up making me turn my steps homeward, flushing me out of the wood and out of the past. It is an odd parting: me full with the remnant history of this place; the “undone” house silent but eloquent. As I move gradually further out of the wood, leaving the remains of the house feels a little like coming up for air. With Higher Coach Road in sight, it is tempting, like Orpheus, to look behind to check that the path through the wood is still there; that I didn’t dream the house, the rubble, the mosaic floor in the guardedly slumbrous wood.
Yet, if you enter the woods
Of a summer evening late,
When the night air cools on the trout-ringed pools
Where the otter whistles his mate,
(They fear not men in the woods,
Because they see so few.)
You will hear the beat of a horse’s feet,
And the swish of a skirt in the dew,
Steadily cantering through
The misty solitudes,
As though they perfectly knew
The old lost road through the woods.
But there is no road through the woods.
Rudyard Kipling, The Way Through the Woods
No, there is no longer a road through the woods, just a path that we keep open.
A sky like bleached bone, the leaves of the horse chestnut trees blushing and burning against it, leaching their tizer colours into the dampening air. In their crinoline cages of colour they’ve caught the sun, and the edges of their leafy fingers scorch, curl and turn to butterscotch and rust like bright corroding nails. The trees are discarding their leaves as though trying to put out the fire, but the autumn sun has worked on them until the whole crown makes a pyre in spite of itself and all those flaming hands are held up in surrender, smouldering and sizzling in the mist. I am glad I waited for this: a spectacle of colour that fizzes, pops and licks the autumn air.
Some weeks ago now it had been in the back of my mind to visit Higher Coach Road – a dirt track really, one of those small signs that suggests you’re escaping the urban and heading for the country – which hyphenates two of my more habitual walks in Saltaire. The road was never intended to be an end in itself, but these days you could be forgiven for thinking of it as a road to nowhere, unremarkable but for its tall cathedralling horse chestnuts trees. Arcades of holly and hawthorn hedges underneath complete the church. In the springtime, the chestnuts had been very fine with their candles of scented blossom and leaves that particular naive shock of green, and I knew then that in autumn they would be glorious again. They have been readying for their second showing, forced to it by cooler weather and the pell-mell October gales. I’ve been judiciously monitoring other trees, waiting for the sweet spot between enough autumn colour remaining on the trees and too many leaves having already given up their ghosts. Today, I judged the time to have come.
So down the hill, over the canal where workers are pondering how to mend the lock gates, past the overgrown shells of former nurseries – and hello Mrs Wren, flick-tailed in the brambles by the way – through the spinney, over the bridge and up by the rill. Standing fox tails of sheep’s sorrel punctuate the field to the left as I bend my steps upwards. An eager school party, clipboarded, heavily marshalled, and somewhat bemused at being out of doors, prompts me to turn early up the track to where it comes out on Higher Coach Road. The lane’s a furnace of colour: I am folding friable origami in red, orange and yellow below my feet. And yes. The horse chestnut trees are indeed glorious in their autumn flutter, their leaves the stained glass hung upon the cathedral trees. I’m a little smug – shamefully so – at how well I have timed my visit. The wash of leaves on the ground reflects those still on the trees and there’s a beautiful, warm symmetry to the ochre-ginger double glow.
Someone’s dog noses at my feet, horse riders pass, and others I do not know wander down the road: we’re all witnesses to the confetti of colour, wondering together. Through the hedge break I expect to see the ebony and ivory of the cows in the field, but the farmer’s put them to pastures new today. I hear them lowing in the distance, not far away. The sharp slipstream of their scent remains, a rank tang on the air. I am wary of the thrumming clouds of flies that have been charmed here by the inducements of cow dung and damp, warm weather, unseen in their flitting pockets until I’m almost upon them and must dodge at the last minute. I’m only ten minutes from town but still I feel deep into countryside here. A flock of dozy Canada geese have set themselves up as temporary field tenants in the cows’ absence – a pitstop on their way to their wintering homes abroad – looking vulnerable with their heads tucked trustingly under wings to catch forty winks before taking off again. In the opposite field on the right of the lane, two herons sit imperiously and companionably until my eager step launches them skywards. I have read that the fat of a heron killed at the full moon was arcanely believed to be a cure for rheumatism and I wonder in a moment of whimsy whether the efficacy of the remedy came from ingesting the fat or through topical application. Thankfully, even should I suffer rheumatic agonies, I will never be tempted to either.
Higher Coach Road, as the name suggests, is an old carriageway and was the main approach road to the Milner Field Estate, commissioned by the eldest son of Victorian businessman and Alpaca wool factor, Titus Salt. Salt-Aire, you see; the village and Mill owe their existence to him. Having watched his father colonise this part of the Airedale valley for his great enterprise, Titus Salt Jr set about inaugurating a suitably grand home for himself and his family, siting it on the northern face of the valley overlooking the village: close enough to the Mill for the convenience of business but not so close that the family would be disturbed by the bustle of its comings and goings. I like to stand here and think of the ghosts of sprung carriages tooling down the lane, conveying their master and mistress home after a county dinner or soiree at one of the neighbour’s houses. The road is peculiarly rich in nostalgia and a heavy sense of its former significance lies on it as palpable as dust. It is rammed earth – though after rains, not quite so rammed, its loosened stones are the rocky bed for rivulets of rain water streaming down its length. Higher Coach Road as it is today is really only used by the farmer at Milner Fields, dog-walkers, and the residents of South Lodge. Embarassed out of its original importance, it is but a remnant of the former significance of the estate.
Rubble. Reclamation. A prick with a thorn. The past at slumber in a wood. Building the house at Milner Field in 1869 was a substantial undertaking. Its gothic, towered design was suitably grandiose, as befitted a family pre-eminent in West Yorkshire society. A prickly silhouette for a prickly place. Indeed, with its large glass conservatory, lush gardens and parkland, and over-sized marble fireplaces, it was deemed fit to entertain royalty twice, first in 1882, then again in 1887.
Though the estate’s South Lodge still stands at the end of the road, the great house of Milner Field has long since been razed to untidy rubble and masonry heaps due to its blighted history and no one wishing to live in it after the 1920s. A fey place; a cursed place; a tomb. Local superstition has, it seems, delighted in licking its lips and pronouncing the house haunted because of its attributed role in the tragic deaths first of Titus Salt Jr himself, and then of those children of the next owner of the house and Mill, Sir James Roberts. Heart attack. Illness. Drowning. The next owners after him, and then the next, suffered similarly precocious-seeming deaths, including Ernest Gates, who met with arguably the most curious death of all. His wife passed away from illness only months after they took up residence in the house in 1923, and two years later Ernest himself reputedly injured his foot on a rose bush in the garden of the house, contracted septicaemia and died. Skin broken by a thorn; a life is torn. Whether this is true or not, no such rose bush still survives in the now overgrown grounds – I know, I have looked. The last owners who moved into the house in 1925 were also both dead within three years. Being final proof of the house’s reputed malicious intent, and no one else wishing to live in such a “cursed” place, it was shut up thereafter and, having defied explosion by dynamite in the 1950s, was finally dismantled by demolition gangs in the 1960s. Local opinion generally found the whole business of Milner Field Estate to be a bad lot, and condemned the house as the villain of the piece.
If you look down the lane towards South Lodge today, you will see the pillared gates that marked the original estate entrance, now merely a gateway into a wood. Within this unremarkable-looking wood lie the remains of that once grand house, and today I have ambitions to go beyond the apparent end of the road to explore where the path takes me and see them. But I’m unsure of the access rights. The excellent Baildon Heritage Trail: Coach Road to Shipley Glen walking guide helpfully comments, in parentheses: “Please note that there is no public right of way through Milner Field Estate, but it is used extensively by the public.” A paradox of a path.
A stranger, dog in tow, exits the small gate at the end of the lane – little do I know it but she is the past walking towards me on the path. I fall into step with her to ask whether there is public access beyond the gate. There is a pause pregnant with the ambiguity of access permissions here before she answers. Assuring me that no one will challenge me if I venture through (not exactly what I was after), she goes on to say, more tantalisingly, you used to have to have a permit to pass beyond the gate. She worked at the Mill, she says, before it ceased being a working mill in the 1980s – and do I know the Mill? I can tell from the way her lips purse around the admission with a slight fond smile – as though savouring this rarefied connection to such a locally significant institution – that she is proud to have worked there. It makes her a bit of a walking legend in my eyes and I marvel at the serendipity of bumping into her on the lane. As she talks, we walk both in the past and the present, seeing everything in the present day through her memories. It is not clear why a permit used to be required to pass through the woods, but I suspect it had something to do with the state in which the land had been left (especially the exposed and treacherous cellars of the house) after the demolition gangs had done their work in the 1960s. We make our polite farewells, walk in opposite directions, and I approach the gate into the woods. As I step from Higher Coach Road into its sequel, I am conscious that I am walking down my stranger’s memory lane and at the same time forging my own. It is an odd sensation.
Continued in Memory Lane: Part Two.
Autumning; v. the transformation of things in the natural world from their summer to their autumn selves.
Nan Shepherd wrote in The Living Mountain that when others talked the mountain – which was her constant companion and to which she was almost mystically attached – was silent. I’ve expressed a similar sentiment myself: to walk in solitude is best. And yet. Today we are companionable and quiet together as we set out into Strid Wood at Bolton Abbey in Wharfedale, letting the trees and the deepening cut of the ravine speak for themselves. Only occasionally do we interject our wonder. The russeting landscape does not need us to interpret for it; but occasionally wonder with the force of an electric charge asserts itself with the need to be stated aloud, as though in sharing it between ourselves we lay claim to our unified experience of this magic.
It is the morning preceding the autumn equinox and night and day exist in fragile and temporary harmony, split perfectly even like two halves of a ripening gourd, an uneasy truce until day starts its slow decline and we, grudgingly, will get up to darkness and our evenings will arrive with inky black before their time. Today we each walk with one foot in summer and one in autumn; looking forward and also behind. The outermost leaves of the crowns of the trees are flushed in eager reds: their chlorophyll gone, revealing their true colours. Those leaves further in are masked, for now at least, by their top-lofty canopies and are able to hang on to their green: summer’s final whisper. Sharp rot, leaf-decay, wood-smoke, the darkly astringent tang of fungi pushing up through the earth. We take the woodsy taste of it deep into our lungs, accept autumn is in the air and that summer has been lost until next year.
We do not do any of this deliberately; we are none of us aware that today marks the equinox until later reading an article about it – but our talk is preoccupied with the autumning of things: with the turncoat leaves, their deaths around us (and they do die brilliantly in this late-summer, autumn-precocious sun), and the chilling air that has brought a heavy sparkle of dew to the floor of the valley: silver underfoot.
The night has been cool and cloudless before us and I think to myself that the sunrise over the top of the valley will have been luminous as mother of pearl. The sun will have broken over the treetops in arcs of pale splendour and, for an exquisite moment, the night-dews will have borrowed its brilliance. The birds which noise to us now (the musical trilling robin, the shrilly barking crows that wheel overhead, the wagtails) must have started their cacophony of song in that thin morning light. A grey wagtail dips exuberantly in its distinctive flight over the sun-meshed water on our left. Happy to be about its day-flight; happy to be buoyed up on the autumn breeze.
We are lucky that the sun has lingered to throw gold upon the changing trees before us; trees that clump together and march the sides of the valley, guiding us up through its mysteries. The sunlight is not constant but strikes here and there through the leaves as, timbered on either side, we ascend with the valley mostly hidden from view. With the thick marches of trees conspiring to keep our destination a secret from us, and the way winding round the natural depressions and inclines of the land, our business is simply the path, the bank with its hospitable roots, the tangle of which wasps and other creatures have made homes in, and keeping a weather eye on the sheer treed drop to our left. At the same time I am attentive to the minutiae of life around me. Sunlight catches at the clapping wings of a speckled wood butterfly, charmed out of hiding by the promise of late-summer warmth on its wings. Finally it settles on balsam. How majestic it seems, propped up on its forelegs, its abdomen flush to the leaf, its wings spread to their openest extent, as though presenting itself for the sun’s inspection. There is deep contentment in its manner. Speckled woods habituate stands of oak in particular.
Attuned to one another’s particularities of gait and tolerances of various gradients, we pitch and slow in silent allowances for each other as we go; as the ravine cuts a little deeper and we climb a little higher; our lungs are tired bellows at labour. The river Wharfe is a constant clamouring companion and we cannot help but let our gazes fuss at it as the path moves us inexorably up and away from its noise. Exerting its magnetism, it draws our eyes downwards between the breaks in the trees, thundering to be heard. On top of the view – on top of the world – we admire the silken silvered ribbon of the river below as it winks and glows between the trees. More and more of it will be revealed over coming weeks as the trees lose their leaves to its flashing flow. The river stretches wet fingers as it goes to creep up rocks, slip over pebbles, and catch at leaf and branch to bear them seawards.
Sessile oaks abound in Strid Wood and autumn is inaugurated in them in strange ways. With none of the haste of the ash, which discards its leaves prematurely and greenly every year, the oak blots its leaves with yellow blisters as though stricken; the edges of the blisters blacken, or in some cases red and orange touch it to lend more of autumn colour to its decay. Over weeks of weathering the blisters increase until gradually the whole leaf is taken over by motley colours, and even then it is slow to fall away. It is a haphazard kind of autumning. More often it is the twiggy bracts – this year’s growth – that fall off in winds and weathers, taking the reluctant leaves with them. I see only a few fallen oak leaves on the path; many more are the acorns whose surprisingly loud drops are an integral part of the forest’s chatter at this time of year.
The river Wharfe is parented in Langstrothdale, its source the shake holes of the Yockenthwaite and Horse Head Moors. The narrative of the river is one of increase and drama: from shake hole springs to becks, from becks joined to form hill streams, from hill streams converging into the river. The name Wharfe derives from the Old English weorf or the Old Norse hverfr meaning winding river. And it does wind in an almost leisurely manner through its deep dale valleys, turning back on itself, noosing and curving with serpentine, sinuous skill. Until the section called the Strid between Barden and Bolton Bridge. Here it kills.
Strid is a name derived from the Old English stryth, meaning strife or turmoil. It is the section of water where the river tightens its belt and cheats its volume into a squeeze that’s sized only a pace wide. Here the pace of the river grows faster, the momentum greater, as it twists and dashes itself down the ravine.
We arrive at last at the water’s side. On the bank’s sharp brink of rock I cram myself into this moment by the water, let it throb in my veins. The river is both drama and danger; people have died here. Perversely quicksilver and beautifully terrible. Its breath is in the air and on the moss-fringed rocks that suck thirstily at it. These rocks that line its passage have been scooped out and undercut by it in smooth crescents as it gushes downstream. A treacherous combination seam of fluid and organic matters colliding. The scalloped edges have their secret pools and hidden depths between. They say that it is 9m deep just here, carving out the limestone shelf beneath it, and the undertow strong enough to keep an Olympic swimmer under. The Wharfe has narrowed too quickly from its 30ft width higher up the ravine to this narrow stretch of the Strid. My gaze cannot rest for long on the water without being pulled upstream to the source and thunder of the course over its rocky bed.
I dwell for a while in a micro world: I pick a bubble to follow but it’s futile and I lose it; a single leaf falls slowly and with the grace of a bird; the greenest moss I’ve ever seen tickles the tips of my fingers. I let Autumn with all its burning majesty pass through me as the woods exhale their leafy crop on long-held breaths and the river blows out its fury.
As seen in the October 2017 issue of Dalesman magazine.
On this late October evening the Glen beckons, for after many pilgrimages to its heights I know some of the delights that await me up there. This is the time of year when I most want to walk; when wanderlust is eloquent and insistent indoors and the autumn itch to pitch into the changing world of dapple-hue is unresolvable until treading through – and smelling – rich leaf-mould.
I set out into a golden, wind-buffed dusk, which is arriving almost imperceptibly earlier than those of the preceding week: this hasty drawing on of the setting sun a signal that the year is preparing to clamber back into its gilding husk, to out-winter coming weathers. Not yet, I appeal with my footstep. I feel the merest nip of chill in the air at the end of my nose and in the tips of my fingers as I plot my course through the same-yet-not-same Saltaire village streets. The paving slabs are wet with dews – step-slicking – and, with the underbelly of the sky burnishing before my eyes, I fold myself into the nap of the wind and walk up through the wood’s unburdening of itself. Under oaks wrack-bent and twist-thrown, their leaves on the burn from yellow to auburn, the setting sun lights – there! – a strike as of a match, and sets the forest floor to fire. I scoop-gather some beech leaves as I go in bright but not yet brittled sheaves turned from green to red-gold.
Emerging from under the trees out onto the Shipley prairie of grasses, bracken and old ragged ragwort, I farewell my warbler companion who has followed my steps, always invisible in the depths of the trees, with his ooo-weet! ooo-weet! My steps plant golden into the old-grass ground and I catch my first sight of the dark monumental rocks laid down all-accidental-like in the thousands-of-years-ago glaciation. Rocks which up-rear themselves and fit the land between them, then fall off sharply, lipping the wooded ravine with their precarious-seeming precipices. Like the rocks, autumn up here is crisp and elemental: the wind flays the turf skins between and over the erratics in suck-cheeked frenzies, creating lips of grass that are trip-trickery to a walker’s boot. The bracken, bled of its summer green, is a brittle untidiness of antique rust, an ochre-brindled crust upon the earth. I have anticipated the desiccation of the bracken since walking the summer path between them, metres high, in arm-hoisted surrenders.
All recalls summer; all looks on to winter. Autumn mixes a little of both in its strange alchemy. Scuff-footed, I walk these ancient stones towards the horizon, the sinking sun striking the clouds with fire behind me. My eye is drawn up high to a banking flock of birds – too high to tell what they are – but perhaps some of the number who leave us to our winter devices each year in elective desertions for warmer, more abundant climes. As my eyes complete their circuit, a sudden start caused by my step from grass to stone draws my gaze towards the fading heather. A shadow enlarged by the low-setting sun. Can it be? It is. A hare. A creature made to stand and stare at; all its energy gathered into its sprung limbs; its unearthly gold-rimmed eye daring my step. But I am stock-still in amazement at this late-in-the-day gift. I will not shift until it does. Don’t mess this up. Its ears are alert to me, upright and sun-bright in the long light of gloaming on the Glen; its tawny fur, caught by the rays of the dying sun, is part-scruffed in places from amorous boxing skirmishes. I hold its gimlet eye for a heart-stopping few moments, and then it musters in a flash and darts into dusk.
This is why I have chosen this end of the day – when the light is sunken, shadow-casting and there is magic at play over the trees. As I stop on top of one of the giant boulders overlooking the glen, made purblind by the wind whipping about and through me, I begin to feel the day slipping to its close. The trees stretched beneath me are shucking their summer clothes: sycamore propellers skate and skirl downwardly; acorns join the beech mast carpet; everything ensures its progeny. And somewhere beyond me, a hare leaps home.
Rain lashes through a wimple of cloud. Days of dirty skies have succeeded one after the other lately and whenever I look out of the window with a fool’s hope, the rain whitens everything with its diagonal, dashing fall, making a mystery of the view: a veil between me and the world. My slate-grey mood prowls withindoors to the tattooing droplet-driving dance. Everything is variously damp and dank-smelling inside as well as out and the house is, for a time, unhomely and I a fidgeter indoors. But, after a morning’s fall from a granite firmament, now the belt of rain-pall has slackened and I step out into mizzle — a good word — which is to say a something or nothing rain; half-masted between a mist and a drizzle; short-changed out of full onslaught; a cobweb of wet on the eyelash; rain’s last resort. The onomatopoeia of ‘mizzle’ suits the barely-embroidering dew of it on my skin and clothing. By using it, I think with a deft complacency, I am keeping this scarce-heard word alive, breathing life back into it as it wets my tongue. Mizzle. It’s one of many words we’re helping to lose through the slow erasure of non-use.
Hand in glove with the elements, my walking today is warm and muggy — almost cosy — in my spangled mizzle-sheen and I lift up a round face into the lea of where I think the sun might be, there in the opaque, blinding white halo. The valley has been washed by heavier morning showers than this and now the very last dregs in the sky-cup are filtered through a fine cheesecloth of cloud leaving only this light haze to drowse upon the grass banks and the willowherb. Its speckling on my skin is almost pleasant; a light refreshment after the stale indoors. I’ve timed my walk with the weather and, in a sudden access of exuberance at the lessened rain, the postman hulloes me and calls that I’ve brought the sun out with me. I am word-stumbling in denial, but he’s curiously adamant as though I had the power — a weather-charm weaver — and, cheerfully amused at the thought, I press on.
Looking out across the valley as my steps draw me down into the crease of it I see — whoosh! — a swift performing its sky-dance, its black wings the merest lilting on the wind. Insects must be drawing it to thread itself back and forth across the scree of cloud, and with what a swooping joy it cleaves the air! Such effort for just a mouthful on the wing, I think, hoving onward though back-glancing at its dipping display. Around me, nature is turning herself to the business of fruiting. Where once were the delicately white-anthered blossoms of the hawthorn, now berries thicken in perfect curvatures; apples are approaching shop-worthiness on the tree; and the rowan berries are already choleric with red, their orange anger earlier than ever this year. I see a whole cycle from flower to fruit on one bramble bower: the pink-white rose-like blossoms, the green fruit still tightly unripe, and the rich blood-black berries, as heavily hanging as antique ear-bobs. It is a worry what the birds will do as a result of this too-soon bounty when the year draws on to dearth, and I send my thought up with supplication: not too hasty, autumn. As if drawn by these forebodings, my eye is caught on goose-stepping lines of black rooks and crows patrolling the playing fields for worms. There is something morbid about their presence as they move forward in forensic searches, like a police line punctuating the green with their funereal sweeps.
The top of the Glen shows itself dazzled and imperfect; the stone houses rendered softly indistinct; and the tree-bank losing its sharpness. The sun, making a brief appearance, sets the haze to silver and I know that somewhere there must be a rainbow, beyond my sightline and beyond my gift today. Trundling on down the hill, my steps mechanical having walked this path so many strides now, I am headed (I know it with sudden clarity) for Hirst Wood: for just-in-case cover; my native tree-patch; nature’s ancient thatch in serried rows of leaf upon leaf. Sometimes my feet draw me down to the wood with the instinctive understanding of sole to soul.
Hirst Wood emerges as a shadow on my left, its darkling silhouette of beech, birch and oak hugging the side of the Leeds Liverpool canal; occasionally dipping a toe in it. Now that I have the shortcut by Caroline St and Dallam Ave by foot-rote, the prospect of being ensconced, enveloped and covered over with green is only ever a mere 10 minutes’ walk away. As with other ancient woodlands, admittance to this hallowed, treed sanctum has been bargained for with many walkers’ feet. If we stopped turning in at the side of Hirst Lane, it would forget us and close the gap over again with irrepressible green as though we had never been here at all; never pressed the leaves with our feet; nor watched the squirrels’ scampers; not heard the invisible birds’ calls. No respecter of people this wood, and I am heartily glad of it. I tuck myself away into the fold of its trees, my steps cushioned on a thick layer of rich black loam: good growing soil that roots you if you stand still for too long, but pleasant to push a toe into. A complicated black, textured and coarse, with bits of bark and moss returning to the earth. Centuries of leaf mould worked over by worms, beetles and mud-boring bees have connived at this good grounding.
I crane my neck up in an arc of longing at the top-lofty beeches and birches; their branches crackle-glazing the sky in stilled squiggles; their cover giving me dry underfoot. Their arms uplifted are greedy snatchers at the hemisphere: ’tis the lure of drawing upward to the highest height; to the point at which the wood tries to leap out of itself into the sky; where the mist rests on the tops of the trees; where the smallest branches quiver their littlest leaves into the air. And then in meteoric rush, like ball from bat, stone from sling: a wood-pigeon casts itself aloft from its cover — a signal to others of the presence of an intruder — and though I provoked its flight with an incautious step, it’s my heart that seizes in the relative stillness. The alarm raised, it’s many minutes of patient waiting before the woodland creatures disclose themselves again. A grey squirrel in stops and starts frets its way from one tree to another, keeping me in sight out of one obsidian eye before scarpering up skywards again. Birds begin their calling-on songs again.
Deep in the heart of the wood, the trees tell me the names to call them by: wood-waker; root-delver; bark-bone maker; timber-teller; crown-weaver; sky-tracer; storm-quaker; trunk-bracer; root-throne forger; wildling-wose; spring-bloomer; ring-worker; skin-splitter; treacle-sapper; burl-wound bearer; heartwood-wedded; wind-singer; groan-swayer; nut-hatcher; place-crowder; high-yammerer; close-creeper; leaf-twitcher; branch-creaker; breeze-shaker; autumn-surrenderer; leaf-looser; rime-wearer; dryad-dancer; rough-cladder; sky-stretcher; stone-breaker; whack-shiverer; rain-taker; squirrel-friender; south-bender; soil-anchor; ground-gripper; sun-chaser; bough-lacer; mage-whisperer; sooth-grower; seed-blower; whip-branch tickler; sometimes-sickener; blast-bowled sentinel; night-moaner; woodpecker-martyr; earth-sifter; light-blending dapple-sender; path-riddler; way-pointer; fey-shifter; branch-lifter; star-gazer.
All the names of the trees suggest themselves in the crook’d, bent and twist-turned forms I walk between; in the soughing of the wind about and through them; in their wood-barked complexions. Oaks are best for gnarliness; the birches straight but ghosting in their white papers. The beeches, taller than all the rest, have by far the highest conceit of themselves. This wood holds a queen of beeches, burled and cankered about her large waist; bent with age; over-crowding the path. She is so generous in size that many Merlins could have been enchanted into her. Surrounding herself she has sown a circle of her young: satellites to her parent tree. She reaches out arms to her progeny. Nothing much will grow under beeches because the shade they manufacture with their leaves is so complete; not so the shiver-leaved birch whose tremble of leaves is so light-permissive as to be almost translucent — and so they are when a shaft of sunlight hits them. The floor of this woodland, under birches and between, was so thick-carpeted with bluebells in spring that walking here was, for a month, entirely blue. Now the cracked pods of the spent bells have all but unburdened themselves of their black seeds; just a few still await a forager to help spill them.
Though it is a modest woodland, barely half a mile from end to end, to enter Hirst Wood as I do today, fugitive from mists and the threat of more rain, is to claim sanctuary from the world without for a quiet while: a pause between two breaths on a walk. I begin to appreciate this wood as meaning more than its parts: the accumulation of the years of its trees told in countless hidden rings; its centuries of leaves; yearly nests and egg-hatchlings; squirrelled nuts and acorn-ripenings; parent trees and be-treeings. And indeed, with barely a week passing without my accustomed pilgrimage to Hirst Wood, it has acquired for me now the savour of a walk-familiar: that is, a place one may walk and let the mind spin-drift because the peculiarities of its ways are so known to foot and memory. To go through, into and under it day after day — to know it in all its guises — is to walk, I have found, still partly in the wood when away.
Bramble mobbed and sure-shod i clamber up the glen on a soft camber of path under trees that shout in the merest breeze; and a slick of stream – more a dribble really, last loosenings of rain – partners me as i climb next to the tram line. Running off from the hill up top and making its asides, sometimes shrill but now a silver jumble of stone-jostled sounds. The water-tumble is joined by a sharp, distinct line of birdsong; no choice: bright day, sun out in everyone’s faces and the birds are loud in all places. Summer rejoices, everything exceeds itself, getting bigger and bigger with vitality of sap. A wren sends a voice out into the world larger than its own thimbleful of body.
How does it do that?
i walk under beech and oak, beside birches broken in anonymous storms before – perhaps – anyone thought to give storms names. i touch their cracked, lichenous skins and get in close to them, running a finger into their lines to find the paths far smaller things than i make their ways to and fro in. The trees overspread themselves and together enmesh the eye that would see through them.
Lines over lines over lines.
i walk the glen edges as if i’d know my limits, drawing my own line by Baildon Moor, up round the crags irresistibly down-looking into a dark crease of valley where the river can be heard as a whisper of something far greater hidden under dulled green canopies of trees. The crags are hard on the knees, up-reared and sheer, opening here into a crevasse, there onto a platform. Further on they perform the way itself; stretching out as bridges where the sandy silt of this sandstone grit which overlays the clay’s been washed away in – perhaps – those same nameless storms.
Take a lungful of air deep and try to preserve it as long as i can; become a bellows, and air and spore, sap breath and moor-dust travelling through me. Eyes close to the view and turn inward to the view there. Spare.
And for the first seconds when i open them again, only blue as through a filter.
This is common land that endures for common folk to walk, to own, to share, and make lines across. Up by the woods-deep tramway; up Prod Lane; until the world opens out on top of me: sky blue, scudded with vapour lines and falling away limitless above. Rocks below foot become quarries and precipices at sheer horizon lines, leaving signs of violence; a landscape aggressively made to fit around and between.
i have seen rocks not as infinite in their roundness, nor as inviting of touch. My hands drag across them, invisibly marking lines on them as i try to decipher the marks other hands have carved on, not through, them.
Even these are not indelible to the rain.
Then through the grasses between as i go from monolith to monolith of rock – my steps older than Jurassic up here – carboniferous grit works itself into the grooves of my boots; the sleeves of my smock. And i pick a stalk for something to hold onto: its papery gold crackling in my palm as i squeeze the seeds of this almost cropped barley top.
Feet other than mine have made deep, dry-banked line-trenches on this rock-buttressed upland; walking a resolute yes to the rights of common ways: dog-walkers, runners, school-returning kids, lovers – these have all helped to lay down the lines of the glen.
Their sunken hollows – light lines between grasses and boulders – forcing and shaping the landscape around them, give the illusion of permanence.
May these lines never fade and may feet always walk read them.
The sounds of puttering families background the first part of my walk today, like a stereo left on – white noise in the street mingling with the birdsong – because it’s the weekend and we are all thumbing our noses at the unpromising sky. It is that species of spring in-between weather when some people throw caution away, donning shorts and short-sleeved tops, and others pass like admonitory puritans in full rain-gear as if to say, these clouds won’t clear. I am somewhere in between, a half-optimist, a hedge-my-bets-ist, with a cardigan and jeans rolled half-way up and pumps on my feet. I disdained an umbrella and a watch on setting out, a decision I’ll probably regret, even if it was made in the spirit of freedom from constraint. Largely oblivious to the surrounding sounds of humanity beside, behind and in front of me, I have my nose folded into a book on wild flowers, resolving to find them all out in their haunts, until a fretful child complains loudly at a sudden shower and a beleaguered father, weariness in his step, consoles with the magic words we will go home. Not I. The rain invokes the latent metallic tang of the soil from the ground and I am overtaken by a pall of warm, wet, mineral mist. This may be as good as it gets today and I am eager to collapse into it.
The search for wild flowers, taken at face value, sounds romantic and a little frivolous; a remnant of a very Victorian manufactured chivalry, or that dreamed up in the musical Camelot when Arthur earnestly explains the legitimacy of flower-gathering to Lancelot, as though checking through some form of ‘Chivalry Calendar’ where it is written next to May/June, in large gothic typeface, disport thyself with finding wild flowers and garland thy lady therewith. I am for looking, not picking today. The right to gather flowers was one of many time-out-of-mind rights hotly contested in the late Victorian period between the rural working classes and landowners. Enclosure of much formerly common land made the picking of flowers, from which a whole folklore including country songs, herb lore and courtship rituals stemmed, a tradition soon to be lost. Since then I wonder how many of us really see wildflowers: the bit of wild on our doorsteps. Too many are prosaically classed as mere weeds, their former uses forgotten. I am come today to see how my native patch is enlivened by wildflowers; as I say, not to pick, for I prefer my wildness left where it is, though my intentions are indeed acquisitive. I mean to put names to them, to assemble each different one into an imaginary bouquet, collect them up, and write them onto the page; to better learn them so as to know them when I see them again. I am determined to become a noticer of all nature’s ‘nothings’, and to build a deeper connection through noticing. After all, a flower’s honest intention and design is to be noticed, simply in order for pollination to take place. And if, as Marvell claimed, the ‘industrious bee computes his time as well as we’, then perhaps I might just as well spend a little of my time over flowers.
Casting myself adrift, then, into the flower banks of Shipley glen, between the canal and the river, I am in no great hurry, and I look – really look – at every flower, like a pollen-stockinged bee myself, deciding where to land a glance, stick my nose, or linger. I am delighted and thrill-drunk when I match them to their names. To confer names is a serious business, an act of creation, as Brian Friel understood when he wrote, “We name a thing and – bang! – it leaps into existence.” There are the flowers I already have names for – yellow water iris, poppy, forget-me-not, cow-parsley – but then there are the new discoveries along the way: tiny, bright yellow purses of the kidney vetch by the side of the water, the true blue of the crane’s bill, clovers in two colours. So engrossed in my examinations am I that I startle three mallards sheltering under the bank who skitter and flank together with a splash as I return guiltily to the safety of the path. Even the outrage of mallards cannot stop me from continuing my searches however. Flourishing on an overgrown soil heap, there’s the wild pink geranium, herb-robert, that some call storksbill because its forming bud is beaky. Its flowers are unshowy and unfussed by my regard: tiny-veined, five-petaled faces lift up lively to the sky; its stems flushed red under the sun. It was believed once to be a good luck charm and a fertility herb. Hopeful country wives had it tucked under their pillows, their heads laying down wishes on top of it. Now that we’ve been formally introduced, I begin to see it cropping up everywhere, a sort of guide to my walk today, as though vouchsafing my passage.
Well into the thick of the meadow are the brute stems of the hogweed, supporting flower heads as big as dinner plates, swaying heavily, and looking like they’ll bend or break in the breeze. I clamber ungainly into their midst in tick-fearing perhapses of footsteps as if at every step a nettle might hold me to ransom over a sting. I will NOT be stung, the soles of my feet insist quietly, caution in their presses. Nettles too have their flowers though: little woolly skeins of green. And though irksome to us, 40 different varieties of insect, winged and carapaced, depend on this prickly pest plant, including the red admiral butterfly, and a host of moths. A scattering of heart-shaped leaves is prevalent under the hogweed: black bindweed that some call buckwheat is leading a merry dance and you have to look hard to see where it has snaked the stems of other plants. Some call it devil’s tether, swaddling itself and other plants tight together. A closer look confirms it has made a pact with the nettle; it is growing up its stems, neatly corkscrewing them in black, and proffers its counterfeiting leaves so I maybe won’t see the stinging set beneath. How clever of them to fall in together at such a trick. Just in case of mishap, I find a patch of dock leaves close by for a swift remedy. Nature is astute like this.
The next flower-bearer I almost miss, as it so eagerly blends into the general green – this suits its purpose, you see. Sticky goosegrass – or cleavers, catchweed, stickeljack or grip grass (apt-sounding names) – barbs my hands and arms as I take hold of it to find its white pin-prick flowers. I was careful of the nettle, for I knew the risks, but no one ever told me of the rash goosegrass can give. Red itch blooms over my arms and (somehow) my neck and I am defeated in spite of myself, splotchy and needled by heat. A lesson learned. The goosegrass has swallowed the low-lying branches of an ash and is making quick work of the willowherb underfoot, sticking to it tenaciously by virtue of its tiny hooks under leaf and along stem. Its flowers are, according to my book, ‘rather insignificant’ and no bigger than a dot; but it’s as well not to dismiss this busy worker. So rapacious is it, I can almost see it move, trying to muffle and stifle everything in its path like a super-animated cobweb that needs no spider to direct it. It is the swiftest and most adamant at reclaiming land for nature; butting in and talking over its neighbours, running as fast as its prattle will take it. No wonder its flowers are so small; all that energy goes into throwing out streamers, which feel along other plants like scouts going ahead into battle, the forerunners on a quest to colonise more and more green. The thing that all these plants have in common is that they are most often to be found in waste places or places whose cultivation has been suspended. Humanity moves out and these plants move in as speedily as they can, bringing a bit of wildness to suburban fringes.
I sit down by a gurgling swell of the stream – an Aire river tributary – to eat my lunch of bread and cheese and cherries and to let my bare toes burrow into grass and sandy soil, needing the contact with the earth. My bottom is quickly wet from the earlier shower but I don’t mind as, with illicit pleasure, I cast my cherry stones into the stream to be taken where the water wills. A pitter patter of rain starts up again, steadily getting heavier, so I remove myself to the cover of a sycamore, generous-leaved and obliging, still listening to the water running over stones in hollow-sounding plunks. Coming from farther away, I can hear the disturbance of the weir like a knife upsetting the river, giving it drama and something to complain over. Then a child splashing about happily with his father, singing, ‘rain, rain, go away, come again another day.’ My lips curve in a sickle moon of delight.
When the rain slackens off and the sun shows itself, I take the little road by the boat club with no clear idea of where I am headed, only knowing that I have exhausted the flower-spotting down by the river and wondering what the side of the valley might reveal. The road leads to a gate and then a wide avenue, which is sun-speckled, warming, fly-moted and rich with the smell of cows from the adjacent field. Manure and hairy hides baking in the emergent sun all mingle together and I breathe deep. This is a Thomas Hardy smell and my mind hooks onto images of hot, milky summers in lowland pastures. Brow pressed against a warm cow side as milk fizzes into a bucket. A blackbird capers madly across the road at my coming looking a little chastened and indignant (and, it must be said, a little silly) at being disturbed. Couples of them begin to sing to one another from the horse chestnut trees, ending in high-noted questions that never seem to get answered, going round and round in endless enquiry. I am jealous of them: jealous that I did not find this avenue in the early spring when the trees had their spires of scented blossoms, all running in a perfumed line. I hug the field boundary here and, warily now, spot the goosegrass again, this time enacting one of its other names, robin-run-the-hedge, as it makes quick work of enveloping the holly margin, covering it up in its sticky stems like a lover that won’t let go.
The sun is tucking and untucking itself in the clouds and can’t seem to make up its mind whether to partner me the rest of the way. Its aloofness pricks my determination to enjoy myself as I pick my path over stone, pressed through long use into the clods, and pause by a hawthorn tree. I hear a start in the ivied roots here and wonder. A vole? Mouse? Stoat? Rabbit? But none of these appear. A pair of tiny wrens suddenly emerge, each no bigger than a thumb, nut-brown and spotted, very dear. Miniature delights. In birders’ terms they weigh no more than a pound coin, but I would not put so low a price on them. Tremblingly they sing as though they are putting their whole souls into the thing and I stop to listen, and watch them bob their tails. The field where the cows are grazing seems hazed and full of possibility as I look out over it and I take in a glad breath as the path starts to build ground. Further on, a squirrel and I surprise each other equally and hold each other’s gazes, mine looking into its eye glittering darkly from where it sits frozen on top of the wall. It is a strange feeling, knowing that for this instant its whole little being is fixed entirely on me and mine on it. There is a little stand-off, but the squirrel is the first to break contact and back-track disappearing who knows where. It is uphill work and tiring, come on legs, and I keep looking ahead to gauge the distance still to go until I reach my summit and the limit of the path.
I do not expect what I find next – a full-stop at the top of this little lane. A gate – but so curious a gate – leading on into Fairbank Wood, a patch of woodland awkwardly situated between boundary walls of various kinds, each jutting out at degrees to clasp and hold the wood between them. This gate looks more fitted to being in one of the royal parks in London than bracketing the way to a scrap of woodland off a farm lane. As strange as Lucy coming upon the lamppost in Narnia, I think to myself. And, with six golden orbs at the heads of the iron posts, it is grandiose and out of place: a relic from something else, and here my mind catches at a truth as it turns out. I later learn this all used to be part of the Milner Field Estate at the heart of which, at the heart of the wood, was a gothic-steepled great-house owned by the son of Titus Salt, mill owner and founder of Saltaire. It seems it was an unhappy house which, rumour has it, blighted those who lived there with strange and unusual deaths or persistent bad luck. Fortunes lost, sudden heart attacks, drowning, scandal, blood poisoning from a thorn scratch. Queer happenings, made the more uncanny by being focused in one place. Now I know a little of its history, I wonder if there is such a thing as genius loci: if a place really does have a spirit or a memory.
I pass through the gate onto what looks like an old carriage way with a central three-cobbled line snaking it like a back bone. And occasionally a row of stones cuts across the way to carry off flood water through little culverts spaced at intervals along the base of the dry stone wall. The astronomer Fred Hoyle, who coined the term ‘Big Bang’ to describe that primary cosmological shock, grew up near here in Gilstead during the First World War, in the lea of that sad house, and wrote of how he and the other village children used to squeeze themselves through these culverts to sneak onto the estate, only to be caught and have their hides tanned by gamekeepers. The woodland floor shows no signs of upkeep now, having given way to ground elder in advancing militias. Hollow-stemmed, deep-rooted, intractable – the devil in a garden. It’s another sort of wilderness here, but this time the kind that follows tacit abandonment. The house, apparently, could not be sold at auction – no one would buy it – and so was dynamite-blasted in the 1950s. Then demolition gangs were sent in to finish dismantling it, leaving the stone as a resource for mill repairs. This ‘undoing’ of the house speaks for itself, for it was very splendid in its hay day and entertained royalty twice. Now only rubble remains. The woodland has completely taken it back: the goosegrass, bindweed and elder all smothering the persisting stones into silence. It has returned to nature and, my superstitious thought supplies, perhaps does not look kindly on interlopers. The mosaic floor of the conservatory is still discoverable in the middle of the wood, and lying under the fast-growing trees are the old cellars, ivied over and moss-grown. Little snatches of herb-robert grow in the cracks of the old garden steps; or to give it its common name, death-come-quickly.
Sparable or Sparrow’s Bill Lane, wall-sided and tree-shaded, leads off on the left here – a public right of way, still tramped by walkers’ feet, the sign pointing the direction proving that it’s not forgotten. An old labourer’s path perhaps; a shortcut for the estate workers from whence they could hear the ringing of the mill’s shift bell; a trysting place for lovers after the Sunday service. To walk it is to walk into history, treading where so many other feet have trod before. Two Neolithic-looking stones guard its entrance, though in truth they can be no more than 200 years old: they keep the way. Walking it now, I am helping to keep it too, and in a split-second of kinship with other walkers, and other writers of walking, feeling the pound to ground as a great leveller of humanity, I smile and am eager to dive off into the lane to see where it might take me. Half an hour later, wearied, still rash-prickled and now a little fretful, I have been sucked down into twists and turns until I am disorientated and no longer know my bearings or the direction for home. The path draws me in a noose more tightly around the former estate and there is a closeness on it and a feeling of needing to get on that I don’t investigate too carefully. The tree cover breaks at last and it’s like coming up for air, a brief caesura in the chug of mud and close-cropped ivy and stumbling stones. This is where Fred Hoyle used to take himself off for his gambols to spot birds’ nests; where, at the age of seven, he overcame his fear of the dark by making himself walk this track at dead of night as others had done before him. One of the most renowned astronomers in the history of the discipline, he perhaps first sighted the stars from a clearing such as this, quaking a little at night terrors and sinister shadows, as I quake a little with having been turned about in the wood in the broadness of day. And I glance up through the veined tracery of tree branches and leaves at a liquid sky, above which the stars wait invisibly.
Shipley glen is shrouded in mist as I make my start, for last night’s rains are already burning off under a sun beating to get through the lingering cloud. It could go either way, I think, but cavalierly shuck the idea of a rain coat like a too-cautious skin. Anyway, I’m aiming for cover: for nature’s putting-away and hiding place, the woods. The leaves will umbrella me if needed. I am all eyes down, for I have about me an express purpose today: today I will search out the liquorice-lacquered stag beetle – Scarabaeoidea – and like a child I of course hope to find the male of the species with its cumbersome and fearsome looking antlers. Pincers I’d always thought them; nippers; doers of harm and my soft brain had counselled caution. Not to go near, not to like, not to find it beautiful to carry your weapon of defence so outward and obvious. All its perfections on its head. Once, I had seen one outside my first remembered home traffic with a spider. And lose. It was dragged down a sewer cover in the end to an undisclosed but entirely known fate. I must have been little for all my memory is very close to the ground of that little battle.
No remarker of hawthorn blossom today I – and just as well for it’s nearly all over now; no noticer of the almost-adult goslings on their glides. The canal a brown be-petaled stillness beside me. Too open to the sky and moving feet, bike tyre and push-chair wheel here. But still I am studious at the sides of the path looking for its jet-black armour. It’s a kind of discipline, to hold the image in the mind’s eye – a glint of black making ponderous passage through last year’s leaves – and hope that by omnipotence of thought you’ll somehow conjure it to shuffling life. Any black thing is a tantalising promise for just a second until the eye discovers it as something else. More often than not the intrusions are dog litter, careless cast-offs by the way. There’s a claustrophobia in looking down into undergrowth so long and I want to turn up the face, stretch the back, and see the birds who are trilling their songs, but as I said this is a discipline and just my luck if I looked up and lost the sight of this click-carapaced wanderer. It’s a slow kind of walking that’s required in swervy zigs and zags. Were I a snail, I’d have limed the path in silver traces back and forth by now. But I don’t really expect him to show himself here: I’m waiting on Hirst Wood for my prize viewing.
There’s a close relief as I get under the canopy of the first few trees and breathe deep the mulchy, pulpy air. It’s thick and heavy under here: humid invisible presences like walls you walk through under the densest of the trees. The wood trying to air itself after the rain. And I should have thought about the mud as my impractical shoes sink and grapple. I tussle with a problem here which I had not thought to have – there is leaf mould in every direction of course so where best to look for the bashful beetles? There’s a loggery up ahead. That might yield something. But I look into all nature’s hidey-holes along the way, just in case, for these are the refuges I know will keep them: close, pent, safe for a secret mating. Into bored out tree trunks – made shells of their former selves by wood worm; under logs wet with last night’s rain. And all the while a chorus of loud dripping going on about me as the leaves shed the last drops of wet in heavy globes. At the stands of nettles and brambles I am defeated – beware all ye who enter here. A spiteful thought: that will of course be where they are hiding.
At the loggery I turn up the usual suspects under the smallest logs: woodlice almost made primordial in their see-through armour that the dark has not trained to colour; some worms wriggle about; and no doubt smaller things than I can see. I stand up and still disappointment takes me for a moment – and then in the periphery of my eye, a rustle of leaves. I look down in almost-welling hope and there’s a flash of grey-brown soft down. No stag beetle but something else. Tiny, delicate, pointy-nosed little fidgeter dives out from under the log to pull at leaves. Like a mouse, but not. The name won’t come, but I’m struck by an almost-recognition on the tip of the memory – something moley, casting me back to a Wind in the Willows or Farthing Wood childhood parody. That sooty brown coat, that whiskered sharp nose, the hiding eyes. Two of them now! I am so still beside the fallen tree limbs and other ‘whack’ that they’re safe enough to venture a sniff from out beneath the log and tease leaves back under with them. One look is to imagine one in my palm: its lightness, its smooth fur, the tiny bones, absorbing all the world – food, mate, danger – through its uplifted tapering snout.
It was, I later learned, a common shrew: sorex araneus. A whole realm of signification haunts this innocent snuffler. Wayward women we are told need taming: wives who berate, scold and prate at husbands worn down into the ground by it. How did you, little burrower, get weighed down by all this angst? Is it the pointy nose that struck a chord? Looking as though it would be in at everyone’s business: poking, prodding; nagging, attacking. But all I see is a dainty little rummager. Furtive flashes from the safety of the logs into the cool leaf mould show you to be indifferent to human mythologies. I stand and observe you in petrified stillness for a while lest I disturb. Then – nothing. You’ve hunkered down in your lair, I assume, but I still linger as if my reverent quiet will bring you out again. But no, no more. Don’t be greedy.
‘Beshrew me’ uttered in the antique sense was to call a curse down on oneself. But I felt the opposite on this day where I went out to see stag beetles and instead caught darting glimpses of shrews. Like so many of life’s adventures, misbegun; but in the slick-treed wood, errant hope got this exchange.